Thursday, August 14, 2008

More on what Arendt meant

It would be inadequate to say that Arendt didn’t know what the “banality of evil” meant and leave it at that. The reaction to her book did cause her to want to explore the concept more fully. Eichmann to her was obviously banal, but not so to her interlocutors who preferred seeing him as the epitome of demonic evil. What I meant when I wrote, “she apparently wasn’t completely sure what she meant,” was that she wrote something she intuitively knew was true, but probably would concede that she hadn’t developed the idea well enough. She hadn’t thought enough about it to develop it fully – that is what I take her to imply in her introduction to Thinking, in which she wrote,

“The immediate impulse [for writing this book] came from my attending the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. In my report of it I spoke of ‘the banality of evil.’ Behind that phrase, I held no thesis in doctrine, although I was dimly aware of the fact that it went counter to our [I take her to mean “Western” rather than Jewish by ‘our’] tradition of thought – literary, theological, or philosophic – about the phenomenon of evil. Evil, we have learned, is something demonic; its incarnation is Satan, a ‘lightning fall from heaven’ (Luke 10:18), or Lucifer, the fallen angel (‘The devil is an angel too’ – Unamuno) whose sin is pride (‘proud as Lucifer’), namely, that superbia of which only the best are capable: they don’t want to serve God but to be like Him. Evil men, we are told, act out of envy; this may be resentment at not having turned out well through no fault of their own (Richard III) or the envy of Cain, who slew Abel because ‘the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.’ Or they may be prompted by weakness (Macbeth). Or, on the contrary, by the powerful hatred wickedness feels for sheer goodness (Iago’s ‘I hate the Moor: my cause is hearted’; Claggart’s hatred for Billy Budd’s ‘barbarian’ innocence, a hatred considered by Melville a ‘depravity according to nature’), or by covetousness, ‘the root of all evil’ (Radix omnium malorum cupiditas). However, what I was confronted with was utterly different and still undeniably factual. I was struck by a manifest shallowness in the doer that made it impossible to trace the uncontestable evil of his deeds to any deeper level of roots or motives. The deeds were monstrous, but the doer – at least the very effective one now on trial – was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous. There was no sign in him of firm ideological convictions or of specific evil motives, and the only notable characteristic one could detect in his past behavior as well as in his behavior during the trial and throughout the pre-trial police examination was something entirely negative: it was not stupidly but thoughtlessness.

The above is from pages 3 and 4 of her introduction to her volume Thinking.

Lawrence Helm

No comments: